The world watches as Abiy loses it — and risks losing Ethiopia, too.
Originally published by Responsible Statescraft on September 17, 2021.
(sites)–Out of the headlines, the civil war in Ethiopia rages on. Thousands are dying in bloody battles between Tigrayan resistance fighters and the ill-trained recruits that the Ethiopian government is deploying to shore up its shattered army. More than 200 massacre sites have been documented in Tigray, and thousands of women were cruelly raped. There’s a man-made famine. Ethnic hatred whipped up by government propaganda threatens to dismember the country.
These brute facts are obscured by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s bizarre confidence that he is destined to re-create the mythic glory days of the Ethiopian empire and by his loyalists’ aggressive media campaigns. The United Nations and African Union have taken the path of least resistance, taking Ethiopia’s diplomatic blandishments at face value. The United States has called out Abiy on his deceptions and self-destruction. That’s the correct position, but no outside power can save a country whose leader is blithely leading it into disaster.
The war began on the night of November 3-4, 2020, when a political dispute between the Federal Government in Ethiopia, headed by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, and the Regional National Government in Tigray, headed by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, or TPLF, turned violent.
The causes of the war are complex and controversial. The two sides quarreled over the rights of states within the federation: the Tigrayans had held an election against the federal government’s decision to postpone elections due to COVID, and each side denounced the other as illegitimate. The first shots were fired by the Tigrayans and within days, a well-prepared ground and air attack was launched by a combination of Ethiopian federal troops, militia from the next-door Amhara region, and Eritrean troops to the north. Before the month was out, this coalition captured the Tigrayan capital Mekelle, forcing the Tigrayan leadership to flee to mountain redoubts.
For the next seven months, the Ethiopian government repeatedly assured the world that it was on the verge of wiping out the remnants of the TPLF. Despite a tight information blackout, disturbing information leaked out about egregious violations of human rights, certainly crimes against humanity. Ethiopian and Eritrean troops were branded as war criminals. The atrocities also drove Tigrayans — TPLF and non-TPLF — to unite in armed resistance. The war — with its mounting battlefield casualties — stayed below the media’s radar.
In June, Tigrayan guerrillas turned the military tables on the Ethiopian army, scoring decisive victories and forcing the federal army to abandon most of Tigray, including Mekelle, in disarray. The government, however, retained control of Western Tigray, an area bordering Sudan, where ethnic cleansing of Tigrayans continues. The Eritreans withdrew to defensive lines along the international border.
After this rout, Abiy announced a ceasefire but made it clear that he intended to regroup and return by force as soon as possible. With good reason, the TPLF spokesman Getachew Reda, who enjoys a reputation for provocative tweets, dismissed the ceasefire announcement as a “sick joke.”
Most importantly, Abiy continued to use his most potent weapon — starvation. Ethiopia and Eritrea encircle Tigray and enforce a blockade. Banks are closed, commercial traffic is stopped, and humanitarian aid is confined to a trickle. Over five million people in Tigray need emergency aid — an estimated 4,000 tons per day that would take 100 trucks to transport. Since the Tigrayans took back control, a total of just 435 trucks have been allowed in. That’s an average daily ration of about 40 grams, little more than a third of a cup of flour, per person. The obstacle isn’t generalized insecurity but a government policy of using starvation against a civilian population — a war crime.
The Regional National Government of Tigray says it is defending Ethiopia’s federal constitution. Adopted in 1995 when the TPLF was in government, that constitution controversially provides for each Ethiopian region to have the right of self-determination up to and including independence. This is exactly what Abiy’s vision of a unified Ethiopia seeks to deny. He has become an ultra-nationalist, seeking to resurrect the glory days of the Abyssinian empire.
After recapturing Mekelle, the Tigrayans did not wait for a counterattack. Armed with captured tanks and artillery, they took the offensive while their adversary was in disarray. They swept out of Tigray into Afar and Amhara regions, but TPLF leaders haven’t explained their war aims. Did they seek to break the blockade and secure roads for aid? Did they want to overthrow the government in Addis Ababa? And if so, did they want to return the TPLF to power or to form a coalition with insurgents in the south of Ethiopia?
With half his army destroyed and his triumphalist claims punctured, a leader might be expected to panic or flee. Not so Abiy Ahmed. With serene confidence, he proclaimed that he was destined to prevail. He showed visiting diplomats his gleaming refurbished palaces and parks and waved away the Tigrayans as a minority that had blighted the country, insisting that no tears should be shed over their destruction. Abiy assures African leaders that he has a plan to win the war and, they add, he truly believes it.
And Abiy has turned up the volume of nationalist-populist rhetoric to maximum. Ethnically charged, often frankly hateful messages that had previously been confined to fringe diaspora groups are now mainstream. Abiy describes the TPLF, and Tigrayans in general, as hyenas, cancers, and weeds to be uprooted. Many Ethiopians, especially from the historically dominant Amhara group, are heeding his call for every able-bodied Ethiopian to take up arms to fight for their land against the Tigrayan “traitors” and “terrorists.” They fight with zeal. Peasants, students, and urban youth, with just a few weeks’ basic training, charge TDF positions in human wave attacks. Sometimes the second wave doesn’t even have guns and have been told to take weapons from the enemy. Among them are priests and nuns with crosses and tabots (replicas of the Arc of the Covenant).
This kind of war blurs the line between combatant and civilian and between combat and massacre. There are half a dozen reports of TDF killings of villagers, each case trumpeted by Ethiopian media.
The mass attacks are a hemorrhage of young lives and a stark warning of future grievance. But they stalled the TDF advance and bought time for Abiy. The Eritrean army has sent armored divisions back into Ethiopia, and the government has been shopping for new equipment including drones (reportedly from Iran, Azerbaijan, and Turkey).
With every setback, Abiy digs in deeper. When his ambassadors failed to convince foreign governments, he eviscerated the diplomatic corps, reducing embassies such as the one in Washington to just the ambassador and a skeleton support staff. Abiy reportedly said that diaspora volunteers do a better job of presenting his case than professional diplomats, though he has also hired commercial lobbyists too. Ethiopian “twitter lions” engage in social media combat with venom and determination. Every independent journalist or human rights advocate faces the online version of a human wave attack — relentless twitter trolling and hate mail.
Intimidation works in tandem with standard diplomatic blandishments. In a world beset by crises, Ethiopia is no one’s priority disaster, and so it’s convenient to dilute the frightening realities. The default storyline of foreign affairs officials is that the conflict is complicated, the facts aren’t clear, there are no good guys — and the government has given solemn assurances to make things better. Such thinking is lazy and demonstrably false — but pervasive.
Foreign leaders who have discussed the war in detail with Abiy and who have examined the grim evidence on the ground don’t buy his story; they think he is delusional and is leading Ethiopia into self-destruction. To its credit, the Biden administration is in this camp. Among its few public allies are Ireland, Norway, and the European Union Commission.
Privately, African leaders are terrified that Abiy will drive Ethiopia into state failure, which would in turn deepen instability throughout the Horn of Africa, but they can’t bear to admit that there’s no African solution for this African problem. If Washington announces tough measures, Africans may publicly complain about American bullying but they will be privately thankful. Such arm-twisting cannot come quickly enough. Ethiopia’s tragedy may be that the country unravels before its leader’s reputation does.